Meet Your Star Warriors: Max von Sydow

Hero or villain? Tucked inside today's STAR WARS: EPISODE VII announcement is a seemingly inscrutable casting choice.

The cast of Star Wars: Episode VII has been revealed, but I hope you don’t think that means that director JJ Abrams is done mystery boxing you! It’s true that, historically, once casting is out of the bag, that mystery box starts to get a little banged up, like something shipped via parcel post by a hippie on Etsy. But as we learned last year, from the litany of LIES told to us by everyone involved in Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams will keep his pitbull hold on that mystery box until the last possible second. So he’s probably super-psyched at perhaps his canniest bit of Star Wars casting. Mr. Abrams has landed an actor who is himself a walking, talking, emoting Mystery Box: Max von Sydow!

Abrams knows that he’s found in Max von Sydow an actor who could be playing just about anyone in the Star Wars universe. Over the past sixty years, von Sydow has played men of incorruptible virtue in films such as The Seventh Seal and The Exorcist. He’s captured the all-too-fragile nature of human morality in titles like Citizen X and The Virgin Spring. And he’s played no less than Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Ming the Merciless and (voiced) Vigo the Carpathian - some of the most evil men on Earth and beyond!

One of the finest actors of his generation, von Sydow is also a genre staple, classing up many an otherwise unremarkable venture on screens large and small, and the Star Wars universe is lucky to have him. But what is it they have him playing? Abrams has us right where he wants us on that one. Is he playing evil? This cast certainly seems to be missing an Emperor-esque villain, and von Sydow’s been delivering expert villainy since before we were born. Or is he playing a wise old father figure? Mark Hamill is currently one year younger than Sir Alec Guinness was when filming commenced on Star Wars in 1976, so if the gang needs a new daddy, I suppose the 85 year-old thespian fits that bill. (Existential sidebar discussion in the comments: what kind of red flag is it when your childhood pulp heroes are over 60 and still need father figures to play against.)

Damn it, Abrams, have you gotten us again? How can we parse whether Max von Sydow is playing a good guy or a bad guy in Episode VII? With 151 IMDb acting credits, it’s not going to be easy. But I’ve meticulously combed through his CV, choosing to focus on Mr. von Sydow’s considerable genre efforts, and have prepared a report designed to help spot trends and patterns, ebbs and flows in role choices. Laid out in this fashion, I believe we can make an educated guess.

It suddenly seems very clear. In the past twenty years, von Sydow’s come to specialize in kindly, paternal figures who turn out to be evil (or at the very least, are Not What They Seem). Though he’s constantly working, and plays parts all over the spectrum, this seems to have become his go-to type on the higher profile stuff. It’s also worth noting that, much like Benedict Cumberbatch’s reveal as Khan, many of von Sydow’s “secret villain reveal” roles can be seen coming a mile away. So what must really be dissected here is whether Abrams has learned ANYTHING from the Khan fiasco, or if he’s folded the experience into his bag of tricks. Is he lazily typecasting von Sydow in Episode VII, or is he using that baggage to subvert expectations? Another question we must ask is “who signs an 85 year-old man to a three-picture contract?” Maybe, ever cognizant of von Sydow’s impending rematch with Death, Abrams is knocking out all his scenes at once? (But eesh, who wants to have THAT conversation with an octogenarian actor? Here’s hoping Abrams was nice about it.)

All signs point to PINK in my report, but it’s also entirely possible that the fanboy in JJ Abrams just wanted some of that 80s genre stank on his hang-low, and von Sydow, star of Flash Gordon and Conan The Barbarian, has a glorified walk-on. Hey, in 1998 I would have never guessed that Terence Stamp’s role in The Phantom Menace was the big pile of nothing it ended up being.